By Jean Balchin 15/03/2018


Last week, I was fortunate enough to interview comedian and suicide prevention advocate Mike King about his work. Over the month of March, Mike and a bunch of mates are riding Suzuki 50cc scooters from one end of the country to the other. Along the way they’ll stop at around 45 schools and community halls and talk to more than 20,000 schoolkids and adults about mental health, and how every one of us can be the hope someone needs when times are tough.

Mike in action.

Good morning Mike, this is Jean. How are you? Thank you so much for granting me this interview. I know you’ve got a really tight schedule at the moment. One of my first questions was how’s the tour going so far? You started on Sunday, right?

Yeah, we started on Sunday night in Invercargill. You know, kids are amazing. Young kids are amazing, but they’ve picked up some bad habits from my generation.

Such as?

My generation doesn’t talk about problems; we bottle everything up inside and pretend like everything is going perfectly. We put on our perfect masks and we carry on in our perfect way. We never express self-doubt to our kids, we never tell our kids about those moments when we are sitting on the horns of a dilemma, and we don’t know if we have done the right thing or the wrong thing.

We just pretend everything’s perfect, so our kids who have self doubt, who have an inner critic, think that they’re the only ones with the problem. They think they’re the only ones who have self doubt, that they’re the ones with the internal dialogue that says “I’m useless, I’ve made the wrong decision”. So we have to change what we’re doing. We have to stop telling kids what to do and actually start showing them what to do. If you want kids to talk about their problems with you in a positive and caring way, guess what? You have to talk about your problems in the same way in front of your kids.

Yeah, that’s very true. I know that rings true for me as well. When I was 17 and started to develop really severe depression, I thought I was such a weirdo because I didn’t understand that other people went through the same thing.

Here’s the thing. When you approach your parents with something like that, you know: “I’m really depressed and things aren’t going well for me.” Often, (and I’m a parent, I’ve got kids from 31 down to 4) when you’re a parent, almost every time we don’t hear. If my babies tell me that they’re hurting, oftentimes I hear that I’m a bad parent. I make it all about me, I’ve gotta say these things to justify why I did something. Quite often, 99% of the time, what my child’s talking about has nothing to do with me. They’re just looking for support, they’re just looking for you to listen; not to tell them what to do, just listen.

I am Hope Tour 2018 from Tenancy on Vimeo.

That’s very true. Can you tell me about what’s been the most rewarding moment of your tour so far, or what’ve you enjoyed seeing?

What I have enjoyed seeing so far, honestly, is the reaction on the teachers’ and parents’ faces when they watch their kids ask questions, when they register that their kids aren’t who they thought they were. They have this demonstrated to them over and over and over again. We were just at Cromwell High school. When I asked the question “How many kids here consider themselves to be confident? Stand up if you consider yourself confident”, maybe ten percent of the room stood up.

Wow.

And then I said “How many kids here don’t feel confident at all?” and maybe 70% of the kids stood up. And then I asked this question “How many kids are in a great place right now?” and again maybe less than 10% of the kids stood up. And then I said “How many people are going through a major crisis right now?” and maybe 30% of the room stood up. 30% of kids identified with having a major crisis right now. And I watched the teachers, and I watched the adults in the room and they couldn’t believe it.

They could not believe it. This demonstrates for them in real time that kids aren’t talking to us. Young people don’t talk to us, not because they don’t love us, but because they don’t trust us. They don’t trust our reaction. The easiest way to explain that is if you’re freaking out at a young person for leaving a cup on the sink, leaving a pair of socks on the floor, or for failing a maths test. If you’re nutting off over that, why would they come to you with something major like “you know what, I don’t think this life’s worth living”. They’re never going to do it.

Yeah. Having been a kid not so recently I get that.

Yeah, so we really need to stop pointing the finger at our kids and actually start asking ourselves what can we do that’s different. And I can prove that kids don’t ask. 40% of kids in school are having a major crisis before they leave school. Then every adult in this country must have been approached by a kid saying “Hey man, I’m going through a really hard time can I talk about it?” but 90% of us have never had that conversation, ever. So what we’re asking my generation is if everyone in my generation, knew that a young person was in trouble and contemplating suicide.

We need to help our young people. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

We would do all we could within our power to get them to a better place. So why aren’t young people coming and talking to us? Ask yourself: why aren’t young people approaching you? It must be something that we’re all doing. So I had to do this three years ago. I had to actually look in the mirror after a whole lot of kids told me what their parents were doing in their lives. And why they weren’t talking to them. And everything they said, I identified with. Because when I do this, my parents do that. I realised, I do that. And everything they said, I was like “oh, god, I do that too”. It was a really, really painful look in the mirror. I had to get my kids together, I had to apologise to them. I had to sit down and be like, “hey man, I’ve been a d*ck! I’ve been a d*ck, your whole life!” Am I the perfect father? No Do my kids come and tell me everything that’s been going on in their lives? Hell no. But your know, they’re opening up a little bit. Will I ever have their 100% trust now? No. And that’s ok.

The improvement in our relationship with my kids is about 500% better than it was. But it’s only about 30% on the trust scale. I’d like it to be 100%, but it’s only at 30%. But that’s ok. It’s not for them to come into my world and think that I have changed. It’s for me to get up every morning and prove that I’m a different person. And proving that I’m not going to be this judgemental clown who thinks he’s right all the time. I have to put my hand up and say I make mistakes. I made a mistake there again. The habits of a lifetime are hard to change. You know, that was the old me, I made a d*ck of myself again, sorry guys.

So you’d say that your tour is just as much for the teachers and parents as it is for the young children and people?

Well you know, you can’t change the attitudes of young people and say hey look, you know, maybe you can be a bit more trusting, without changing the attitudes of parents. It’s pointless planting the seed in the kids head that maybe you can open up more if our attitude doesn’t change. So people say to me, “why do you talk to kids?” You know, we’re adults, we have these problems too, you’re always focusing on the kids. The reason I focus on kids is because kids drive change. Old dogs, new tricks don’t go together.

There’s three classic examples of young people in this country driving change. I remember in the early nineties when those green recycle bins came. I used to just throw plastic in the bin. I go outside one day to throw the plastic in the bin, and my young son goes “Plastic goes in the recycle bin!” He starts a little chant at me. I said “Son, it goes to the same place.” But he carried on: “Plastic goes in the recycle bin, plastic goes in the recycle bin.” So I chucked it in the recycle bin. “Happy now?” 25 years on, I’m still putting plastic in the recycling bin!

The next one: I was in the car with my kids, heading down to the shop, when the chant started from the backseat: “Seatbelt, Daddy, seatbelt Daddy!” So I clicked it, eventually. “Happy now?” “Thank you daddy!”

Hinewehi Mohi. Credit: E-tangata.

And the latest example, the last big change, was in 1999 when Hinewehi Mohi sung the New Zealand National Anthem in Maori only at Twickenham. “That’s not our language, we speak English in New Zealand” they said. This wasn’t a one week thing. This went on for two years. You cut to 2017 before any All Black game, and every single person in the stadium is singing the song in Maori. The coaches – three of the whitest men in New Zealand – are singing the song in Maori. Why? Because our kids sang it. Our kids didn’t care about any of those attitudes. Everyone now follows suit. If we want to drive change in our country, we’ve got to engage the young people. We’ve got to tell them “You are changemakers. You are such a powerful generation, and the only barrier to change, if anything, is my generation.”

That’s a very empowering message. I’m aware we don’t have much time left in this interview, so I thought I’d ask one more question. What’s the deal with the white wristbands you’re handing out?

So what we know is that 80% of people in New Zealand who have a major crisis in their life never ask for help, ever. The reason they don’t ask for help is because they don’t know who is safe. We worry about the judgement of other people, and what they will do or say if we disclose the fact we’re in trouble. So we decided to come up with an idea that signifies safety. It’s just a small, white wristband with three small but powerful words: I Am Hope. If you’re wearing that wristband, you’re identifying yourself as somebody who won’t judge or shame. You’re identifying yourself as someone who won’t gossip, or ask any stupid questions.

“I Am Hope” is a commitment to Hope.

It doesn’t mean that you’re qualified to fix anyone, or that you have to, or that you’re qualified to give advice. But it means that you are qualified to give unconditional love and hope. It sends the message, “if you want to go and talk to someone, I’ll come with you, dude!” I will physically go with you to get the help that you need. Most people are scared about what happens when you go in to see someone. So we encourage people to take a support person along.

The wristband is also a signifier that we don’t put up with old school nonsense – the idea that anyone struggling with a mental health issue is a drama queen, or is just attention seeking or weak. Dude, take your attitude somewhere else! We take care of our people. We only show love and empathy here. So go away and come back when you’ve fixed your attitude.

That’s a great message, one of solidarity, and compassion and hope.

The wristband is a clear signal that attitudes are changing. Maybe my kids can talk. Maybe someone else can talk.

I noticed that in a recent interview you said that we Southerners are quite close-minded.

What I mean by that is that the South has had a lot of suicides.

We’ve got so many rural communities down here, it can be quite isolating. In my experience, that’s how it is anyway.

So in the full context of what I said, was that I don’t blame the schools for not inviting us. When you have your suicide prevention “experts” who are funded by the government coming into schools and saying “Mike King talks about suicide, and after his visits, kids die by suicide.” If this were the case, I wouldn’t have me in there either.

With my comment, I wasn’t pointing the finger at the schools. The schools are amazing. But there’s a lot of misinformation being spread by people who were academically trained a hundred years ago, before this little thing called the internet happened. Kids communicate in a completely different way, and every time there is a suicide, the authorities still say “No one talk, no one talk! Lock down the school.” It’s the elephant in the room. This is old-school thinking. We think we’re doing the right thing by silencing the children so we don’t start contagion.

But by not mentioning it, by leaving the elephant in the room, our kids are thinking “Wow, these guys really don’t care. Our friend just died and no one’s talking about it. They obviously don’t care.”

And this isn’t my opinion. This isn’t something I’ve just made up. This is what hundreds and thousands of kids are telling me on a daily basis. So what’s happening is, our kids are talking about it amongst themselves. It’s becoming very much a “them and us” situation. My message to these people who say that we should stay quiet is “stop thinking about you, and start thinking about the kids.”

We all agree – you shouldn’t talk to the kids about means of committing suicide, but we do need to sit down with our kids and actually start asking them “What do you need from us? What can we do better?” This isn’t happening at the moment. Silence doesn’t work. 

For more information on talking about suicide and mental health, check out this guide. 

Yeah. The silence just perpetuates the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues. My brother actually died by suicide about three years ago and so I’ve witnessed first-hand the ramifications of people’s silence and unwillingness to talk about what happened.

Do they still talk about your brother’s passing? Or is it still the “move on, move on,” attitude?

It’s still the “move on, move on” attitude, although not so much with people my own age. I think it’s reflective of the older generation trying to bury their heads in the hand and ignore what happened.

I do feel sorry for your mum and dad. Stigma isn’t just directed towards the person who died – it affects those left behind, too. I know that every time your mum and dad walk down the road people will look at them, and feel sorry. You know, parents are often reluctant to talk about things like that because communities can be really judgemental and harsh. Much love to you and your family.

Thanks Mike, I really appreciate that.

Our front-line workers are the most amazing people in the country. They give their heart and soul into their work. Mental health workers should have no more than five cases a day. In New Zealand, they’re having up to thirty, or even forty, cases a day. It’s ridiculous. But they’re dedicated, and they turn up every day. I’ve got nothing but admiration for them. But the system is broken. It needs to change. But the system is driven by those people who are running the mental health industry – including all the stakeholders, such as corrections and pharmaceutical companies. It sometimes feels like the people who are running these things care more about the money than the people.

For us, it’s about people first. We refuse to take government funding. We refuse to feed off the crumbs off the table. Why? We want to have a legitimate voice at the table. The people of New Zealand are our organisation. We don’t spend it on fancy cars or offices. We run out of my kitchen. We go round to schools, and talk in communities for free. We pay our own way there, our own hotel bills. If people need to see a counsellor and can’t wait 14 weeks with their suicidal thoughts, we pay for counsellors for them.

I think we need to start putting people first. At the moment, the only people the government seems to be listening to are the academics and the clinicians. No one seems to be listening to the people who are living with these problems every day. Have you been spoken to by anyone who came up to you and said: “What have you learned from your brother’s death? What can you tell us that we can do better?”

No, I haven’t. Only my peers have come up to me for advice.

It’s very close-minded. It’s that attitude of “We know everything. We don’t need to ask these young people – they don’t know anything.” Last year, we had 666 people die because we’re doing the same thing. Their reaction is “Well, you can’t stop them! People want to kill themselves.”

It’s a very defeatist attitude to have, isn’t it?

Hell yeah. I believe that we should be targeting zero suicide, and I believe it’s achievable. I don’t care what people think. I’ll tell you how it’s achievable. If we all go home today and say to our families, “Look, I’ve had a gutsful of this. I’ve heard how many people are dying by suicide. I want you to know that in our house, we’re going to go for zero suicide. So if you ever feel miserable or suicidal, you can come talk to me. I won’t be judgemental. I won’t complain. I promise I’ll be there to support you, and listen, not talk.”

If every family does this, and by the end of the year, no one has died in the family, then guess what? That’s a zero. So let’s not try and “change the world.” Let’s take this message home to our family, and take care of our own.

Change starts at home.

When people see the happiness that you’re creating in your own family, they’ll come up to you and ask: “Hey man, what have you done? You guys seem so connected and happy.” You can say “We just changed our attitude.” Change your attitude, change the world.

Thank you. That’s an awesome message, and certainly one I’ll be thinking about when I next see my family. I’ve got eight younger brothers and sisters, so I can implement this attitude with them.

Yeah! Team meeting guys, let’s come on in. For me, the best gift you can give your brother is to make change. Celebrate your brother’s life. Let’s make it count. Let’s drive change. We can change the world, just by changing our attitudes. And sitting around and chatting is a part of it. Do me a favour. Remember your brother fondly. Speak about him all the time. He isn’t the elephant in the room, he’s the sunshine. He’s just a boy who was hurting and needed his pain to stop. So let’s stop the pain for everyone else right now.

Thanks Mike, I really appreciate that. That’s an amazing message and it’s very kind of you to say that.

Much love to you sister! I have to run – the bikes are all parked up and my mates are looking at their watches.

You can access a bunch of resources here on the Key to Life website.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.